by Nancy Marano
with photos by ICAT
Ok, call me a skeptic. When I heard there would be cat agility demonstrations during the Howl-O-Ween Cat Show in Albuquerque, all I could think of was, “Cats navigating an agility course? That’s for enthusiastic dogs, not aristocratic cats.”
After watching the event, I had to admit my mistake. Cats do indeed go through the agility course. Some even do it on the first try.
The course was enclosed in a large fenced area in the show hall. Various obstacles – tunnels, ramps, a tire ring jump, and simulated weave poles – were placed within the fenced area. This was the basic beginner’s course that concentrates on low-impact, low-cardio workouts.
Spectators jammed against the fencing to see how the cats would do. To everyone’s surprise, some of the most unlikely candidates did the best. A blue point Himalayan kitten was the first cat to try, and she zipped through the course as if it were nothing. Himalayans and Persians are not the most active of the cat breeds. Their short legs and square bodies don’t lend themselves to graceful leaps. But this Himalayan kitten proved the skeptics wrong.
To be fair, some cats did not get through the course. Some went through the parts that intrigued them, one cat laid down and went to sleep in the tunnel, and one cat watched his owner run the course twice trying to show the cat how to do it. I can only imagine this cat thinking, “Look at that fool, but if it amuses him…”
Spectators got into the action with cheers, laughter and encouraging words for all the cats. What impressed everyone was seeing the beauty of cats in motion, the grace with which they went through the ring leap, and the fact that most tails were straight up in “happy cat” position.
The Albuquerque Howl-O-Ween Cat Show was the first official cat agility demonstration in the nation. It was organized by ICAT, International Cat Agility Tournaments, which is a division of The International Cat Association (TICA). The intent of cat agility is to have fun with your cat while nurturing the cat’s mental and physical sharpness. Agility training creates a deeper bond between people and their cats through daily interaction and play. This activity focuses attention on the cat’s speed and intelligence rather than simply being a beauty contest for purebreds. When these demonstrations become an actual competition event next year, there will be courses for various ability levels from beginner to advanced, which will include high jumps and more varied challenges.
Watching these cats have such a great time made me think about clicker training, a concept that is gaining in popularity among cat folks. The book Clicker Training for Cats by Karen Pryor had been languishing on my bookshelf.
Pryor is a behavioral biologist who did pioneering work in force-free training methods with dolphins. She is the founder of “clicker training,” a system based on operant conditioning and all-positive methods. Clicker training has been used on a variety of different animals as well as humans, but it is relatively new as applied to cats.
While you can teach your cat to do tricks by using clicker training, there are also practical reasons for training your cat. If you have to take your cat to the vet or you need to get your cat into the pet carrier, wouldn’t it be nice if he came when called and went into the carrier on his own? You can achieve this type of response with clicker training, according to Pryor.
Clicker training uses positive reinforcement and a marker signal to build new behavior. Rather than luring, ordering, or forcing an animal to do something, the trainer watches the animal and clicks when the animal does something the trainer likes. The animal is given a small treat, and the trainer waits for the desired behavior to happen again. When it does, the process is repeated. In effect you are paying with a treat for a desired behavior. It is a transaction between you and your cat.
As Pryor says in her book, “The cat’s part in the game is not to learn tricks, but to find ways to make you click so you’ll give it a pat or a treat. From your standpoint you may be teaching the cat to come when called, or to roll over.”
Find a treat your cat really likes to use as payment. Give only tiny treats. You’re not feeding dinner to your cat, you’re giving a reward. Start with short sessions and a simple goal like having your cat touch a target (your finger, a stick, etc.) with its nose. When the cat touches the target, click during the behavior not before or after it, and give a treat. Wait until the cat finishes eating and repeat the process. Write down everything that happened in the session to judge your progress. Once your cat learns a desired behavior you can add more and more things to his repertoire. I know it sounds as though all of this would take a long time to accomplish, but actually it doesn’t. Most cats catch on to the concept in a few sessions.
The clicker training method is now being used with rescue, shelter and feral cats to help socialize them making them more adoptable. Perhaps the best results from using clicker training are the increased interaction between you and your cat, the mental stimulation it provides for the cat, and the deepening bond of trust between the cat and you. Cats are highly intelligent and need challenges. Clicker training provides that for you and your cat.
I have my clicker and treats at the ready and I’m about to start working with my cats. Maybe next year’s agility competition will include my cats, Sammy and Rocky.
Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.
Cat Agility, I Don't Believe It!